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“I saw her, I swear I saw her!”
Ben Salter was trembling as he sat in the chair in the office of Archie Stanhope’s Architectural Salvage Yard, where he’d been working for three weeks. I’d popped in to the yard to pick up some timber for some work on my house, and went into the little shed that acts as Archie’s office. The huge yard was always filled with piles of bricks, roof tiles, stacks of timber joists, old iron baths and other assorted debris from demolished houses, all arranged neatly for builders to pick through to buy what they wanted.
“Exactly what did you see, Ben?” Archie asked gently, looking at me over the teenager’s head and giving me an ‘I told you so’ look.
“I was on my own here, remember? You’d left me to lock up. I was sweeping up after that final delivery yesterday night. And I saw her walking towards me. Plain as I’m seeing you, Jack!” Ben turned towards me.
“So where did she go?” I asked.
“That’s what so crazy.” Ben covered his eyes with a hand. “She just seemed to disappear.”
“Are you absolutely sure someone was here?” Archie probed.
“I didn’t imagine it!”
Ben was Archie’s newest employee, and it was his first job after recovering from a serious mental breakdown. He’d been in a psychiatric hospital for a year, and we knew him to be in a delicate mental state. But so far he’d worked well, everyone liked him, and he seemed happy enough, well-adjusted, and, until now, there had been no sign of a return of his mental troubles.
“She just—vanished!” Ben went on. “One second she was there, and I asked her what she wanted, was about to tell her we were closing up, and she’d gone. I looked all over for her, but I couldn’t find her.”
“Well, she obviously didn’t have a vehicle parked nearby or you’d have seen it, so if she nicked anything it can’t be much,” Archie said. “So I’m not losing any sleep over it.”
“It isn’t that,” Ben said, slowly. “When I looked at her it was like she wasn’t really there, know what I mean? You could kind of see through her.”
“Describe her,” I said.
“Very attractive. About my age. Longish dark hair, sort of flowing blouse and a really short skirt, and, I think, high heels.”
“No wonder you were sorry when you couldn’t find her,” laughed Archie. “Don’t worry about it, lad.”
“But I just don’t understand,” he appealed to both of us. “I mean I never saw her come into the yard, and I looked all over before I locked up, yet I never found her and I never saw her leave.”
At the end of the day I came back to the yard to collect the rest of the timber I’d bought. It was after five o’clock, and everyone but Archie had gone home. Archie and I were alone in the office again.
Archie’s craggy face seemed to have even more lines than before, and the pale blue eyes that always seemed to be looking into distant horizons, were full of anxiousness.
“Have you got a minute, Jack?” he asked me.
“You’re going to think I’m a daft old bugger.”
“I already know you’re a daft old bugger.”
He indicated the ancient chair for me to sit, then sat down himself behind the desk and took a bottle of whisky from a drawer and some glasses, pouring us each a drink.
“It’s ridiculous, I know it is,” he said, almost to himself, “but I’ve been worried about what Ben said this morning—you know, about the mystery prowler. Take a look at this.”
He passed across an old newspaper, yellowed with age. There was a picture of a girl, dressed exactly as Ben had described: dark hair, short skirt and high heels. The headline said ‘Suicide of socialite beauty’. It went on to say: Rebecca Shelley, 18-year-old daughter of Andrew Shelley, of Althouse Manor, was found dead in the summerhouse in the grounds of the manor. Police are not looking for anyone else in connection with the death, and a suicide note was found next to the body.
The date of the newspaper was 1967.
“So?” I asked him, having read it.
“We demolished the summerhouse of Althouse Manor a couple of weeks ago. It was a very old building, eighteenth century, and the bricks were lovely old Flettons, well worth saving.” He pointed out of the window. “There they are, stacked up over there.”
“Come on, Archie,” I said in disbelief. “It’s fanciful enough to believe in the possibility of ghosts. But if there are such things, surely they have to be associated with a place, not inanimate objects. Not a pile of bricks, for goodness sake!”
“Yes of course, there’s no logic to it at all,” agreed Archie. “But I dunno. Materials absorb energy, heat, light, electricity, don’t they? Supposing psychic phenomena exist as a sort of energy? Why shouldn’t it be stored in a natural material, just like anything else? Like a sort of battery?”
I shrugged. “Did you tell Ben about the suicide of the girl in 1967?” I asked.
“No, no of course I didn’t. If I had, I’d naturally assume the boy’s imagination had run riot. After all, you know all about his mental problems.”
“Brrr, getting chilly these days, ain’t it?” Archie shivered. His face seemed to pale visibly.
It was suddenly very cold. It was a miserable November evening, and whether it was our maudlin conversation or whether there really was something strange happening, the temperature certainly seemed to have dropped alarmingly and very suddenly indeed.
“Bloody hell, I’m shivering now. Feel that breeze, Jack?”
“Yes. All of a sudden.”
It was like a stick of ice had run through the air. Both of us looked out of the office window towards the piles of bricks, the ones I now knew had come from the summerhouse at Althouse Manor.
“Mary Quant,” Archie said.
“Mary Quant. You’re too young to know about her, Jack, but in the sixties there was this dress designer, very attractive woman she was, called Mary Quant, sort of a fashion icon you could say. She invented the miniskirt. Nowadays of course it’s come back into fashion. But in the sixties baring your legs almost up to your bum was new—it was daring. I followed the case of that girl, Rebecca Shelley, who killed herself. One of the things I remember was, it was a genuine Mary Quant miniskirt she’d been wearing when she died. And there were rumours that some pretty weird things happened at Althouse Manor afterwards.”
He nodded. “All a lot of hysterical nonsense, I’m sure of that. But this is the killer, Jack. There were reports that people said they saw Rebecca in the grounds near the summerhouse where she took the overdose. Don’t they say that a ghost is a spirit trapped between two worlds?”
“But not trapped inside a brick.”
“Okay, it sounds ridiculous.”
“Come on, Archie, it is ridiculous! Let’s go to the Dog and Duck,” I suggested. “Have another sort of spirit and pull ourselves together.”
“Good idea,” Archie agreed with alacrity, getting to his feet and making for the door. “See a few other faces, it’ll put all this rubbish into perspective.”
As Archie locked the gate and I waited beside him, I couldn’t help looking towards the towering piles of bricks, all that remained of the summerhouse at Althouse Manor. But there was no girl, no staring face, no miniskirt above high-heeled shoes.
Then, just as we were getting into my car I saw her. A girl of about sixteen, just as Ben had described.
We frantically unlocked the gate and ran towards her. She ran, but she wasn’t fast enough for us and we soon caught up with her.
Close up we found that she wasn’t a young woman at all, but a child of about twelve. Dressed in the sort of skirt an older girl might wear, but, to my relief, she had no similarity to the faded yellow picture in the 1967 newspaper. And from the way she was trying to pull away from Archie’s grasp of her sleeve, she was very much alive.
“Only adults are allowed in this yard,” said Archie. “Children could hurt themselves, and they’re not covered by my insurance. Where’s your mum and dad?”
“I’ll go home now, let me go, Mister, please!” she wailed, finally stopping trying to pull away. “I didn’t mean no harm. We’re at the camp, our caravan is over in the car park. Mum leaves us alone, so we wander, see? I found a hole in your fence over at the back, and I was exploring, that’s all. I wasn’t going to nick anything, honest.”
I remembered the travellers’ caravans that had invaded the car park only the previous week. Piles of rubbish, a generator running day and night, and feral dogs, and children running amok or riding bicycles. From a distance this child in her short skirt could well have looked like a young woman to Ben. I breathed a sigh of relief that the mystery was explained, and that Ben wasn’t losing his grip on reality.
Archie had his mobile phone in his hand. “Give me a number and I’ll phone your mum and she can come and collect you. Now you have to promise not to come in here again. Promise?”
She nodded, biting her lip and looking down at the ground. “I only came in because I saw the lady was already here.”
“The lady?” Archie asked.
“There she is!”
We swung round to look and just caught a glimpse of something flashing past in the light. For barely a split second the thing—a sort of shimmering flash of light that seemed like a human figure—appeared.
And then it was gone.
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